Thursday, April 30, 2015

“Daybreak”: Data's Day

Someone once said “the night is darkest just before the dawn”. And the dawn has broken.

“Data's Day” is not the episode I would consider the true beginning of what we might call Star Trek: The Next Generation Mark II (Mark I having destroyed itself in the chaos of “The Best of Both Worlds” and the past ten weeks or so having been a largely directionless interregnum trying to come to terms with its loss). But it could be called the new show's pilot, and it's a thing of absolute beauty. This is without question one of my absolute favourite episodes in the entire series, if not the franchise, one I always made a point to watch whenever it would come on and a story that has defined a huge portion of how I imagine the universe of Star Trek: The Next Generation. It's not absolutely perfect and there are some nitpicks I've always had with it, but even so it's nothing short of a masterpiece and a godsend after half a year of aimlessly puttering about throwing things at the wall and only occasionally tossing out an execrable disaster of a script.

It's an understated stroke of genius to do a “day in the life” story chronicling an ordinary 24 hours aboard the starship Enterprise. Life, after all, is not lived in those grand and momentous events that become transcribed onto your memory forever, but in hours, months and years we spend in the humdrum, day-to-day routine in between. Which is why, of course, it's so very important that we all make sure to live our lives as truthfully, sincerely and fully as we can each and every day. And Data serves as an excellent role model in this respect because, as he shows us over the course of this episode, Data chooses to spend his day trying to learn from others and improve himself. Over the course of what's apparently an ordinary, uneventful and unremarkable day, Data learns to dance, strives to improve his social skills, looks after each and every one of his friends, ruminates on the meaning of love and commitment and, incidentally, uncovers a covert Romulan espionage ring. We'll, uh, talk more about that a little later on.

As I've chosen to read “Data's Day” as a pilot of sorts, it's also lovely to see how Data uses his perspective to articulate his relationship with the rest of the Enterprise crew and how he sees them. In a sense, this serves as our reintroduction to them, and across the board the crew is as compelling and likable as they've ever been. There's Commander Riker, who seems to know and get along with everybody, as charming and easygoing with Data as he is chatting up tactical officer Ensign Kellogg. Captain Jean-Luc Picard, who stands firm for his people and his values even in the face of Starfleet Command's accepted decorum. Geordi La Forge, Data's best friend and closest confidant brought memorably to life by LeVar Burton. Unassuming chief petty officer Miles O'Brien, who comes to Data for help and support on his wedding day. Deanna Troi, ship's counselor and a natural empath whom Data assumes must find it difficult to relate to because of his lack of emotions, but who fairly obviously, at least to us, harbours more affection for him than he grants her.

And then there's Doctor Beverly Crusher, the Enterprise's chief medical officer who bears many hidden talents. As Data tells us, she's an exemplary people person, and thus embodies traits he himself would like to emulate. But she's also a skilled dancer, though she'd like it kept on the down low, and Data seeks her out when he wants to learn how to dance for Chief O'Brien's wedding. What follows is one of the primary reasons this episode is so memorable: An absolutely delightful and instantly iconic act where Doctor Crusher tries to teach Data some basic dance steps done as a comedy skit. And there's no better testament to the raw talent on display here than the revelation that the whole thing was written, choreographed and blocked by Gates McFadden and Brent Spiner themselves. Really, there was no way it couldn't have been: Gates is of course a renowned and in-demand Hollywood choreographer above and beyond her stint on the starship Enterprise, and Spiner's a supremely capable dancer as well.

Spiner and McFadden are also both unparalleled comic performers, and their contribution shows their genuine knack for not just comedy, but their deep understanding of their characters and how Star Trek: The Next Generation works. They effortlessly and seamlessly blend their sense of humour with a tone very befitting the series (or rather what the series should be actively shooting for on a daily and weekly basis) and the positionalities Data and Doctor Crusher would be operating from. It's a formidable CV for both actors, Gates especially, a stark reminder that the people who probably know this show better than anyone else aren't in the position to be actively involved in shaping it anywhere near often enough and a decisive proof of concept for an approach this new Star Trek: The Next Generation can use going forward. Sometimes, you just have to accept you may be overthinking things and let the characters and the setting speak for themselves.

(This scene also gives us a quite striking example of wardrobe work and casting: After Doctor Crusher has to bail on Data, he calls up a holographic dance partner to help him practice. She doesn't say much, but she leaves a mighty impression: Her dress is the best work I've seen from Bob Blackman in probably two years, and her actor, whose name sadly went unrecorded by history, exudes a formidably sensual and dominant presence.)


On top of all that, we even get introduced to two actual new characters: The first and most noteworthy is of course Spot, Data's pet cat, who will go on to have one of the most memorable and storied tenures on the series. In my mind you just can't have Data without Spot, so this is a pretty major event in the history of the show. Spot is portrayed here by the first of a succession of different cats who, like Data's dance partner, sadly goes unknown and uncredited. The second is naturally Keiko O'Brien, née Ishikawa, ship's botanist, played by Rosalind Chao. Keiko is definitely an important character who marks another turning point for Star Trek, my unease about a Hollywood production casting a Chinese actor to play a Japanese character notwithstanding. Her relationship with Miles, which begins with this episode, will go on to be one of the most defining story arcs going forward and is rightly hailed as one of the best, most realistic examples of long-term romance in the franchise, and possibly TV in general (though in my personal opinion not *the* best).

I have to say though, and now we're treading into the comparatively negligible issues I do have with “Data's Day”, I've always had mixed feelings about how Keiko is handled, both here and in her numerous other appearances throughout Star Trek. None of this is due to Rosalind Chao, I should stress, who is a brilliant actor all stop and someone who in fact was already a member of the extended Enterprise family: She was actually one of the frontrunners for the role of Macha Hernandez during Star Trek: The Next Generation's early casting and preproduction phase before ultimately losing out to Marina Sirtis. No, I love Chao, but my issue with Keiko is that she tends to be written uncomfortably close to a kind of stock, sitcom wife archetype with alarming regularity: A lot of episodes featuring her have her complaining about something, usually Miles' job, and will, especially during the Dominion War, portray Miles' relationship with her as being often more strained than the ones he shares with his male buddies. And that's a thread that begins here, with Keiko being defined pretty much exclusively as a kind of stock, sexist, panicky, emotional bride archetype. As good as the rest of the episode is, it's a pretty poor first impression of such a venerable and important character and it speaks rather poorly of the current production team, especially coming off of some of the episodes we've just seen.

Keiko's the episode's biggest letdown, but there are a few other things about “Data's Day” I could nitpick. Like, why does Data have to be sending a message to Commander Bruce Maddox from “The Measure of a Man”? I know Data has an infinite capacity for forgiveness and he frames it in terms of a teachable moment, but I don't really see the need to keep in touch with someone like that. Especially considering how this episode could have looked without that conceit: Why couldn't, for example, Data just be recording a diary? Imagine if he was, and the show had kept that same tone of narration-Data would have been talking directly to us, diegetically reaffirming that this really is a reintroduction to the Enterprise crew as viewed through Data's perception of himself as a kind of outsider.

(There's even something to be said about the very choice of Data as a viewpoint character: Obviously he makes sense because he doesn't need to sleep and thus can observe the comings and goings of the crew around the clock, but before settling on Data the creative team considered other characters, including, most interestingly, the Enterprise herself. And as much as I love “Data's Day” as is, I can't help but be immediately drawn to any story that posits the Enterprise as an actual character and would have absolutely *loved* to see a pitch like that played out.)

Then there's the Romulan spy sublot, which feels every bit as tacked on as it was. Rick Berman and Michael Piller weren't comfortable doing a true day-in-the-life episode, and requested there be some element of drama thrown in because they felt viewers wouldn't be interested in the episode without some action sci-fi element to keep them invested. So the Romulans get wheeled in for another boring Neutral Zone runaround that is quite thankfully their last story as Star Trek: The Next Generation's primary antagonists. The hackneyed nature of the plot aside, it does sort of obviously grate against and stick out from the rest of what the episode is trying to do, kind of calling into question whether this really is a “typical day” for the Enterprise crew.

There is, of course, a defense to be made here. In the past I've argued that action sci-fi cannot truly do a story where “nothing happens” so to speak because, by its very definition, it's got to have some manner of action spectacle. And while I think that's true, it's worth asking ourselves whether or not Star Trek: The Next Generation really is action sci-fi or if it just occasionally wears the trappings of it to trick a specific subset of its fanbase into remaining invested. I, for one, am not convinced it is, and it's the very success of episodes like “Data's Day” that leads me to feel this way: Even from the very beginning, Star Trek: The Next Generation has always positioned itself as a very slow-paced and heady show that's far more interested in people's thoughts, feelings and life experiences than complex sci-fi worldbuilding or exciting ray-gun space battle action. Indeed, I think the show has pretty unmistakably lost its way whenever it has thought it was those things.

You might take this one step even further and say that, well, maybe getting caught up in Romulan espionage nets along the Neutral Zone actually is all in a day's work for the starship Enterprise. I think if that were the case though it would lead to an ultimately very boring and unimaginative sort of Star Trek, and Star Trek: The Next Generation, through the kinds of charming moments and vignettes we see here, time and time again proves itself to be far better and far more inspiring than that. It's in our quest to understand and sublimate our own mundane existences where the real magick is done, and it's in studying that where we learn the most about ourselves and our place in the universe. That's what the “human condition” that Star Trek creative types love to throw around really means, and that Data understands this says a lot about who he is as a character and as a person.

This episode has my vote for possibly the greatest Data story ever, even among the glut of Data stories we've seen so far and that the show is going to keep throwing at us. It's also our first true glimpse at the bright new future that promises to rise from the ashes of this troubled production season: It's not always going to be smooth sailing going forward from here and there are most certainly going to be rough patches ahead, but at least we can wake up today a little more confidant, kind and hopeful than we were when we turned the lights out last night.

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

“Griefs and Anxieties”: The Loss

Ugh, but first we have to sit through “The Loss”.

Last time we talked a bit about how speculative fiction can sometimes get so caught up in its own ideas it neglects certain other aspects of good storytelling convention. And we also mentioned how Star Trek: The Next Generation's various creative teams have pretty much always had a problem with their characters, for some reason never quite managing to find a way to make them understandably human while also maintaining the idealism they're supposed to represent (a problem that is, I should point out, exclusively limited to the TV series side of things at this point in time. Michael Jan Friedman has never once been tripped up by this). “The Loss” is the most cringe-worthy and egregious example of this worrisome trend we've seen to date, because nobody on the Enterprise seems to furrow quite as many brows in the writer's room as Deanna Troi.

Wesley may have been sent of in an excessively tropish way, but at least it seems like “Final Mission” was something the creative team was onboard with and knew how to approach, even if the way they approached it was glaringly lacking in ambition. Yes there's still a glut of Picard, Riker and Data stories such that even if you don't like specific individual episodes about them, there's almost certainly another one you will, and no, don't get me going on Tasha Yar again, but the fact remains that we're at a point in the show's history where even Worf and Doctor Crusher have had extensive (and more or less effective) stories dedicated to them. And even so poor Deanna Troi gets shunned like she somehow offended every single crewmember on the series. The only other character who elicits anywhere near the same amount of confused emotions from Star Trek creator types seems to be Geordi La Forge, and we'll deal with the issues he gets saddled with at the end of the season.

With “The Loss” though, the show tries to do for Deanna much the same thing it had done to Captain Picard last season in “The Best of Both Worlds”: Strip away something vital and fundamental to her character and see what's left behind. But it plays out very differently for Deanna than it did for Captain Picard-“Family” notwithstanding, the whole ordeal with the Borg and Locutus was supposed to be about demonstrating how human Picard really was by showing what he looked like as the hollow shell of a human: Something is defined by its absence wherein we notice what we've taken for granted when we notice it's no longer there. “The Loss” is sort of the inverse of that-The episode plays out almost as a critique of Troi, trying to show that how, absent the one thing that defines her as a character, she's rendered a seething, barely-constructed bundle of negative emotion. It feels altogether more malicious than “The Best of Both Worlds”, and that's concerning for a lot of reasons.

Picard is allowed to be sympathetic and dignified, while Deanna is portrayed as basically a spoiled brat. Once again I think the reason for this is fairly obvious, but, because I've used up my reserves of unbridled rage on “Reunion” and “Final Mission”, I'm not going to go on at great length about why. You're all intelligent enough to make the cognitive leap yourselves.

Plainly, the supposed “five stages of grief” play an important role in this story, but I think that's so obvious as to basically not even be worth mentioning. It's essentially what the whole plot is about, and it's not shy about making sure you picked that up. What's more interesting to me is what Paula Block and Terry J. Erdmann say about this in Star Trek: The Next Generation 365: They read this episode as in a sense a critique of Deanna Troi's supposed “holier than thou” attitude. For them, the crucial moment is the end when she regains her empathic powers, as it's only then when she reaches the “acceptance” stage. About that, they say, in what is quite possibly the single nastiest out-of-context quote in the entire book
“Well, it's easy to be gracious and say nice things about being human when you're so much more than human, isn't it? Would she have reached acceptance without regaining her powers? Quite possibly-so long as her human friends kept her plied with chocolate.”
It should be noted here that Block and Erdmann are admitted Original Series fans, because I think this passage sums up a lot of latent, unspoken (well, if we're lucky they're unspoken) problems a lot of people, especially Original Series fans, have with Star Trek: The Next Generation. We've spoken at length before about how fixated everyone seems to be on “conflict” and this show's supposed lack of it without realising what the show is actually trying to do with its utopian setting. And, to be fair, the show itself doesn't always know what it's doing with its utopian setting. In fact, it rarely does, especially in the past year and a half. In the context of Original Series fandom, a lot of this criticism of a perceived lack of conflict is really just code for the fact TOS fans miss the racist banter between Spock and McCoy, but there is another kernel here worth parsing out.

The thing is, because of confusion over Star Trek: The Next Generation's utopia, and it's a confusion I'll freely admit can often be found on both sides of the producer/consumer divide, a lot of people think the Enterprise crew of Star Trek: The Next Generation believe themselves to be superior to everyone else. It's this elitism charge that most worries me, as this is precisely the sort of thing the Enterprise crew should be fighting against: Indeed, the whole relationship between them and their superiors at Starfleet Command ought to be the crew constantly calling their bosses out on their Earth-centric bias and barely reconstructed xenophobia and neo-imperial impulses. As I've said many, many times before, the Enterprise crew is meant to genuinely, unironically embody the ideals the Federation can only pretend are theirs, or co-opt for their pseudo-progressive state-sponsored ideology. That so many people, including people who are going to go on and write future Star Trek stories (in particular ones that are openly self-critical and deconstructive in tone), seem to have utterly missed this rather crucial underpinning of Star Trek: The Next Generation's basic moral philosophy is quite frankly alarming, and can only be seen as something of a failing of the show itself as well.

And I think, unfortunately, this is what's happened to Deanna Troi as of “The Loss”. As she's the daughter of an ambassador and technically royalty (though don't forget Deanna herself said the Sacred Chalice of Rixx was an “old clay pot with mold growing inside it” in “Ménage à Troi”) as well as a mind reader, she could be seen as the most privileged member of a crew a lot of people have read as being elitist. So because of that, and because she's a woman (because misogyny), “The Loss” takes an almost visceral pleasure in “bringing Deanna down to our level” and humiliating her (notice how when this happened to Data in “The Most Toys” it was played as almost a tragic drama, while this just feels spiteful). In particular, any of the scenes involving Will or Doctor Crusher are basically unwatchable due to just how awful it makes Deanna out to be, and that's so depressing to me at this point I can't even muster up the energy to get angry about it.

I am also aware there is a popular reading of this episode that posits it as a nuanced and sympathetic treatment of disability. This is a reading that's endorsed by a lot of the production team as well, with Rick Berman citing it as an interesting take on blindness. According to Berman, the episode was about what would happen “If you were the only sighted person in a colony of blind people and suddenly you lost your vision and they all said 'So what?'". Michael Piller is a bit cooler on the issue, saying it was a tough script to get a feel for and they went with it because they needed a Troi episode, and that the blindness theme wasn't as clear as it should have been.

Of course the obvious question from me is “Did you guys just forget you have an actual blind character in your main cast?” Well, actually, I guess they must have done given the sorts of stories about Geordi we'll be looking at eventually. For her part Marina Sirtis says she got a lot of letters from disabled people thanking her for her performance, saying that she captured the emotions they had gone through perfectly. And, well, I'm not one to argue with the experiences of actual disabled people, but I have to confess that while I can maybe see it in Sirtis' performance, I can't see it in the script.

And it's Marina Sirtis who this all kind of comes back to me. “The Loss” exists, according to Michael Piller, essentially to throw her a bone. And, truth be known, Sirtis is very good at portraying heavily charged and intense emotion: If I were to try and derive a more positive reading from this episode, I'd point out how I'm reminded of Tasha's (oh look, I worked her into the essay after all!) emotional breakdown in “Hide and Q” and how much I thought that made more sense for Troi, as it would seem to follow that a character who spent all day dealing with the emotions of others might have some trouble with her own. But that character wouldn't have lashed out and alienated those close to her-She would have known to seek them out for guidance and support. But Marina Sirtis is good at big, sweeping powerful and commanding emotions, and what “The Loss” makes clear if nothing else is that episodes that are quite good for Marina Sirtis are very bad for Deanna Troi.

I wonder why that might be...

Sunday, April 26, 2015

“Dual Survival”: Final Mission

A requiem for the would-be boy wonder?

Wesley Crusher, of course, had to go. That's been obvious to everyone since at least “Encounter at Farpoint”. Perhaps not to the writing staff, however, as the final impetus for the Whiz Kid's resignation from Star Trek: The Next Generation came not out of basic good sense on the part of the creative team, but from the person who played him. Wil Wheaton was an established, in-demand Hollywood film actor before and into his tenure on the starship Enterprise, and it was becoming increasingly apparent that while the show was doing nothing but increasing the stature of his castmates, it was holding him back and forcing him to turn down lucrative job offers. Of course, it's also somewhat bleakly funny for me to point out that LeVar Burton was *also* an established Holywood personality, and he had no problems not only committing to Star Trek: The Next Generation but also holding down a whole second television career over at Reading Rainbow, so it's not exactly like Wheaton was some special case or anything.

But either way, it came to pass that Wheaton would follow in Denise Crosby's footsteps and leave the show, and that Wesley Crusher would finally be shipped off to Starfleet Academy.

The writing staff were apparently very proud of “Final Mission”. Everyone involved says they wanted to make sure they were able to send Wesley off with the most fitting tribute showcase they could think of. Jeri Taylor says this is the script she put the most work into all year, and Micheal Piller said everyone was very cautious on this production because there were a lot of bad feelings surrounding the way Tasha Yar had been written out...

Oh yeah. Tasha Yar.

Yes, I'm going to bring up Tasha Yar again, and no, I'm not sorry in the slightest. Let me put it to you all as bluntly as I can. How precisely do you think it makes me feel to read this? To hear people like Piller, Taylor and Rick Berman say it was incredibly important to everyone to make sure Wesley Crusher went out on a good note and then mention Tasha Yar in the same breath? I could maybe accept that this was them trying to make good on their past mistakes and make up for how poorly Tasha was handled (even if that does weirdly seem to throw “Yesterday's Enterprise” under the bus) had this show not just come off the one-two punch of “Legacy” and “Reunion”. Bringing up Tasha three weeks after you still sort of failed to do a story about her with the appropriate dignity that was kinda sexist on top of things and two weeks after tossing out one of the most jaw-dropping, misogynistic affronts to utopian progress and basic fucking human decency imaginable does not come across as good in the slightest, particularly when you're doing so in the context of an episode about how wonderful Wesley Crusher is.

No, the real reason Wesley Crusher gets an honourable sendoff (or what this crew thinks is an honourable sendoff at least, which I'll complain a bit about further down) and Tasha Yar doesn't is because he's Wesley Fucking Crusher. Not only is he Gene Roddenberry's favoured son, he's also cishet white male privilege incarnate, and that affords him very specific and very noticeable rights and advantages over a poor, working class, underprivileged butch Latina (and let's not forget, at least for the sake of argument, that Tasha was originally supposed to be Latina, even if she wasn't on TV). Wesley gets pomp and circumstance for his exit not out of a desire to make amends for what happened to Tasha, but because that's the sort of thing it's expected the nice, bright young white man with a future ahead of him is entitled to.

And here we see the primary disconnect between me and the sort of people who write for and about Star Trek. They look at what Wesley Crusher embodies as things to valorize, glorify and decorate while I think they mark him as the sort of person who needs to be nailed to the fucking wall with a phaser rifle pointed at him.

And just to dial down on the utterly embarrassing, total and complete, though deeply ironic, lack of self-awareness on display here, “Final Mission” is actually boring as shit. Wesley's deep, dark secret is that he's only ever wanted Daddy Picard to be proud of him? And Jean-Luc actually buys into that cloyingly saccharine garbage? Oh, give me a fucking break. I mean really, how stock and cliche can you possibly get? Is there any province of insultingly, pretentiously trite hack writing this show isn't going to touch on this year? It's not enough, apparently, that we have to give Wesley the most dully predictable ending to his character arc imaginable; we also have to have to doll up this vapid, hollow simulacrum of human emotion and interaction as something really powerful, meaningful and profound. It's overstuffed, self-indulgent, milquetoast inanity and is an insult to everyone's intelligence, even Wesley's.

(I guess the one good thing about this plot is that it portrays characters who we're apparently meant to read as the paragons of Starfleet, Wesley Crusher and Jean-Luc Picard, as being pretty good in a survival situation. It does make Kira Nerys' comments in "The Siege" sound particularly blinkered and silly.)

I'm running out of excuses for this crew at this point. These are veteran, professional writers here. The amount of latent talent in that writers room makes my own pitiful efforts look like juvenalia. These are the same people who are going to create some of my own very favourite television of all time. And this, THIS, is what they consider good drama and character development. In an effort to explain away this return error of a logic paradox if for no other reason than I know fucking “Emissary” and “Eye of the Beholder” are coming at some point (unless I've somehow imagined them as well), it would seem to me that maybe this team has serious mental blocks about the Star Trek: The Next Generation characters. They really, genuinely do not seem capable at this point of wrapping their brains around who they are and who they work. Michael Piller has come the closest, but even he tends to work best when he goes into a state of meditative trance and lets automatic writing take over his conscious body and guide him. Not everyone else jobbing for Star Trek is that spiritually advanced, and Piller doesn't directly write very many scripts himself.

Wesley Crusher, in spite of whatever else was conceptually wrong with him (which was A LOT, believe me), is ultimately just the latest casualty of the writing staff's lack of comfort with the characters they're writing for. And he's going to be far from the last, as we'll see in another week or so. This is actually hard for me to understand: I know the Star Trek: The Next Generation characters were originally conceived as basically templates built out of stock, programmatic archetypes because Gene Roddenberry was actually kind of a shit writer, but I mean four years into the show with a cast of performers like this and you'd think the writers would have *some* handle on who these people are and how they act when they talk to one another that was at the very least more interesting then the set of vague character traits and virtues they started out as. But apparently they don't.

And this touches on a genuine problem with not just Star Trek: The Next Generation, but speculative fiction on the whole: Although sci-fi-fantasy's ability to focus on compelling and imaginative ideas and concepts over stock melodrama and gritty plot functionality is its greatest strength, it can also be its greatest weakness. Speculative fiction characters more often than not tend to be disposable talking heads to provide exposition and can be as inhuman and distant as possible. But to make a story truly memorable and enjoyable, you have to populate it with characters we care about to some extent. And if you're doing utopian fiction especially, these have to be characters we look up to and admire. They don't necessarily have to be strictly “realistic”, to use the cinephile's favourite buzzword; they can stand in for specific philosophical concepts or be built purely out of mythological and mystical symbolism. But they have to have personalities we can identify as natural and human to at least some degree. This means they can't be hackish stereotypes, and it also means we actually have to like them.

Which is my problem with “Final Mission”. It's asking me to get deeply invested in a character who I quite frankly just don't care about in the slightest, and it's a poor piece of writing to boot. It's a sad thing to say about any character, but the fact remains the version of Star Trek: The Next Generation I have the fondest memories of is the one that he's not in. And, thankfully for me, that show is finally almost ready to start.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

“We just get a fragment of a hint”: Future Imperfect

This is the archetypal example of the problem I'm having with the fourth season. “Future Imperfect” is a perfectly straightforward and even enjoyable hour of television, but it doesn't leave me with a whole lot of room to craft a creative and entertaining critical analysis of it. I mean, pretty much everything that can be said about it is pretty obvious to anyone watching it.

I actually remember “Future Imperfect” quite well. I did tend to mix it up with “Parallels” a lot, which I like better than this episode, but “Future Imperfect” still sticks with me. The caves on the planet where Commander Riker spends the episode in particular, as well as Barash's design, reminiscent as it is of the stereotypical Grey aliens from abduction reports while also being endearingly cute and childlike at the same time. I guess if you're going to do an abduction, missing time and false memories story in a Star Trek: The Next Generation setting, that's the kind of character you'd naturally want to create for it. The illusory Enterprise stuff is obviously pretty fun in a sort of “lets play around with our stock programmatic conventions a bit” kind of way. I just don't have a whole lot to actually say about the episode itself, so this is going to be another one of those entries where I tell you how much I'm trying to fill space in this post as a way of filling space in this post.

“Future Imperfect” holds the distinction of being the one episode Michael Piller apparently thought was so good he told the team to buy it sight unseen without even hearing a formal pitch. At least, that's the story Brannon Braga tells: Piller himself says he thought the story was “a little flat” after the action got going and he, along with the script's writers J. Larry Carroll and David Bennett Carron, came up with the Romulan illusion misdirection subplot during a brainstorming session. With that kind of setup, “Future Imperfect” is obviously an extraordinarily good showcase for Jonathan Frakes, who gets to sink his teeth into a stylistic range as Riker he hasn't always gotten the chance to. To broadly generalize, in more mediocre outings Will has tended to be written as either a pallet swap of Captain Kirk from the Original Series, an affable everyman or a grumpy Starfleet lackey. This is one of the first episodes to really play up and play on where he really shines on the show, which is in his strong relationships with the other crewmembers.

Here, Will is confronted with the possibility that a huge chunk of his life is missing, so he defaults on what he knows best. And, Minuet notwithstanding, it turns out he knows his friends so well that this becomes the key to figuring out the illusion-One of my favourite exchanges from this whole year happens when Will confronts the illusory Geordi: “[You've been running a Level 1 diagnostic] For thirty hours? That would never take you more than four. You're incapable of that level of incompetence, Mr. La Forge!”. Though as much fun as that is, I do have to quibble a bit with some of the other clues the script tries to drop: Speaking of Minuet, as great as it is to see Carolyn McCormick again, it's a bit implausible to expect the audience to remember a one-off character from four years ago (two, if you want to count “Shades of Grey”), though the episode does hedge against this a bit by having Riker explain that she was a hologram. What it doesn't reiterate for the benefit of audiences who might not have been around in the first season is the fact Data can't use contractions: It expects us to remember that, and remembering that sort of arcane minutiae is the province of hyper-obsessed Nerd Culture viewers the show should not be courting anymore.

(I guess in that sense you could also read this episode as an early version of those later, frequently Riker-centric, psychological horror episodes that become such a signature of Brannon Braga's, like "Frame of Mind".)

Even though Will eventually sees through it, Barash's illusion does provide a somewhat compelling look at the potential future of the Enterprise crew. Which, I suppose, in a season about trying to piece together what the material future of Star Trek: The Next Generation is going to look like, is actually pretty fitting. Although Jean-Luc Picard becoming an admiral in hindsight should have been another clue for Will that this future is not an authentic one (Picard did, after all, say as early as “Coming of Age” that he would never accept promotion because he's a traveller and belongs on a starship), it's interesting to see Deanna Troi working with him and not married to Will as a lot of fans nowadays would probably expect. Picard and Troi have always been very close as characters, and this does seem like a logical extension of that, as much as it does annoy me a bit to see her as a subservient “aide” instead of, like, a renowned anthropology professor or something.

Speaking of Will's love life, can I just gush a bit about how Barash has him married to Minuet of all people? There are a not insubstantial number of girls-of-the-week he could have chosen from, but that holographic faery queen apparently made such an impact on Will that Barash assumed she was flesh and blood. Not only that, it's another in an increasingly long line of tributes to and invocations of the first season we've seen this year: I think its telling that while Star Trek: The Next Generation has been reflecting on its past quite a lot of late, so far it's made almost no direct references to the second or third seasons...

Well, except for that one really big one in “Ambassador” Tomalak. This is Andreas Katsulas's third appearance in the role, and his last for a very, very long time. Katsulas wasn't happy with the way his character was handled here, saying he much preferred it when he was only a presence on the viewscreen where he could act larger than life, and I think he's quite right. This reveals a lot of really subtle and admirable things about the kind of actor Katsulas was: For one, it paints him as someone extremely cognizant of how video technology and broadcast media can play a pivotal part in the efficacy of an actor's performance, which is a very laudably Long 1980s sort of savvy. On a more localized level, it also shows that he was well aware of how that viewscreen on the Enterprise's bridge really ought to be used: Katsulas knew Tomalak simply wasn't as cool if he wasn't lording over the scene from the other side of that titanic expanse which, again, is something the series since the first season hasn't always completely understood. Even Locutus in “The Best of Both Worlds” wasn't as imposing as DaiMon Tarr was in “The Last Outpost”.

But while Andreas Katsulas and Commander Tomalak effectively bring their tenure on Star Trek: The Next Generation to a close with this episode, someone else's begins here: “Future Imperfect”, somewhat strangely, in retrospect, is the first appearance of Patti Yasutake as Alyssa Ogawa. Who is for me, frankly, one of the most venerable and iconic characters of Star Trek: The Next Generation. Along with Suzie Plakson's Doctor Selar, Alyssa Ogawa has always been an evergreen staple of Doctor Crusher's “sickbay action team”, always on hand to help with whatever medical emergency the crew might find itself in and always there to be Beverly's own “Number One”: Someone with whom she could chat and hang out when she was still on duty. It takes future knowledge to fully appreciate her early bird cameo in this episode, but, well, this *is* “Future Imperfect”, after all. With Alyssa Ogawa now onboard, Star Trek: The Next Generation has taken one more huge step towards completing its transformation into the final form I'm so fond of.

So, it's like clairvoyance: A glimpse at a possible future to come. Imperfect though it may be, it's a glimpse nevertheless.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

“Put 'em On Ice”: Reunion

No. Unforgivable. Fuck this and everything about it.

Yes, you're all in luck today. Been awhile since I've done a proper polemic on this blog, but here we are: “Reunion” is simply godawful. This one deserves to stand with “The Naked Now” and “Code of Honor” among the series' absolute lowest lows. This episode is pretty much everything I hate about scripted drama in general and Star Trek in particular all neatly wrapped up in a gift bundle.

Unless this is literally the first thing of mine you've ever read (in which case, hi! And sorry you had to come in on such a crap episode! Please go read something I enjoyed writing about instead!) you know why I hate “Reunion” as much as I do. What happens to K'Ehleyr is a textbook example of fridging: Randomly and unceremoniously killing off a female character solely to give her male significant other something to lament about. With no agency of her own, she's treated as a disposable satellite of a male character's dour, angst-ridden narrative existence. It's a flagrantly sexist (and in this case, borderline misogynistic given a few concerning habits the show's developed over the past couple of years and with an eye on one or two specific episodes coming up this season) approach to storytelling that Star Trek: The Next Generation not only has no business engaging with, shouldn't even be something conceivable to someone working in it.

It tells you something about how rotten and vile the concept of fridging is given that I'm not even a *fan* of K'Ehleyr and I *still* think she deserved better. Every woman does. Yeah, I still think K'Ehleyr was a not-entirely-functional attempt to “spice up” a show and cast the second season creative team didn't really know what to do with: Her big contribution, setting Worf on a path to put the Klingon and human sides of his personality in better harmony, could have been done a lot of other ways. I mean, isn't it *also* sort of sexist to have that all wrapped up in a single, female package? That's just the infamously-dubbed Manic Pixie Dream Girl trope, which is just another form of objectification. It's always a warning sign when men expect you to breeze into their lives, straighten them out and help them figure themselves out. Those are men who don't know how to grow up.

But you know what? None of that actually matters, because you don't fridge characters period, not even Manic Pixie Dream Girls. Once again, what does it say that this creative team is so sadistic and creatively bankrupt their first instinct is to wheel in a former one-shot guest character and put a bullet through their head to give one of the mains some more precious “conflict” to deal with? Fuck off. Fuck off and think about what you've done.

K'Ehleyr's death is also stands in for a unanimous vote of no confidence in Suzie Plakson as a potential new member of the Enterprise extended family, which hurts for its own reasons. It didn't have to be, of course: The show brings back familiar actors to play multiple different roles quite frequently. But for some reason, perhaps because K'Ehleyr was her most reconisable Star Trek role, or the one most connected to a main character, or maybe just because she wasn't happy with the way she was treated here (all of which are perfectly reasonable assumptions to make, I might add), Suzie Plakson never returns to Star Trek: The Next Generation after this (though she will guest star in one episode of Star Trek Voyager and later on Enterprise at a point in history very far away from where we are now), even though Doctor Selar will be referenced and name-dropped constantly throughout the rest of the series as a vital, beloved member of Doctor Crusher's medical staff and the crew in general.

K'Ehleyr is understandably a bit of a dead end. But there were ways to deal with her not entirely working that weren't this. And it's actually Selar's loss that affects me more: With this episode she becomes almost like Tasha Yar, a phantom haunting Star Trek: The Next Generation, constantly reminding it of promising paths it deliberately closed off for no other reason than shortsighted stubbornness and a toxic fixation on melodrama. K'Ehleyr could have been conveniently ignored (as this episode makes painfully clear), but the show chooses not to ignore Selar, constantly trying to have her there without actually tangibly having her there. It's almost like its trying to make good on its transgressions here, but it's still not quite good enough. It's never good enough.

And just to drive the knife in a little further, what also happens in “Reunion”? Alexander is introduced. Worf and K'Ehleyr's son who was apparently conceived back in “The Emissary” because we can't have any sex (even implied sex) on television without punishing the participants, particularly the woman, with a child nine months later because sex for reasons other than procreation is apparently a sin against God (or maybe the Great Bird of the Galaxy). As if this waste of space wasn't revoltingly sexist enough already. And for what? Why did we need to kill K'Ehleyr or bring in Alexander in the first place? Please, actually tell me, because I've never been able to figure it out.

Doesn't Worf have enough of a reason to hold a grudge against Duras already? I rolled my eyes a bit at “Sins of the Father” last year because of its bombastic, self-indulgent sci-fi worldbuilding silliness, but it was still a functional, perfectly crafted and enjoyable hour of television and one of the highlights of an otherwise troubled year. There's the stuff with Captain Picard and K'mpec, which is good and I do like that, but I can't enjoy it because of what's going on with Worf and K'Ehleyr in the other half of the plot. And, as I'll talk more about when this particular plot tumour finally gets untangled, I think the relationship between Picard and K'mpec works just as well relegated to the show's newfound ethereal and imagined past. To be perfectly blunt, we all know “Redemption” is coming, but haven't we set it up enough? What actual purpose did “Reunion” serve, apart from making me hate my job and question my life choices again?

Speaking of, let's talk about Alexander. Specifically, why the fuck does he exist, apart from the aforementioned slut shaming? Granted, there are some decent stories about Alexander later in the show's run and I certainly don't hate him with the fervor some Trekkies do, but that's all for the future: Why does he exist now? What does he add to the story apart from reproductive futurism overtones and contributing to Worf's manpain? Is it because Wesley Crusher was about to get written out and for some reason the show felt it needed to have another “single parent raising a child on their own” setup? I'm not sure if it was common knowledge at the time that Wil Wheaton was leaving, though given that's going to happen in two weeks, I'd probably bank on it. But if that's the case, why is Alexander shipped off to the Rozhenkos at the end of the episode and disappears for a year? By that point we'd long grown accustomed to the new status quo, and having a new kid join the cast is not the most welcome of additions.

And if the team was so concerned with preserving an earlier version of the show's dynamic, why did nobody think to bring in a new Tasha Yar? Actually, on second thought, don't answer that.

It's a bitter irony that this episode comes literally the week after “Legacy”. Last time we saw Star Trek: The Next Generation's conscience telling us that straightforward drama and conflict-for-conflict's sake is not good enough to justify the show's continued existence. And now we see in stark detail why the show so desperately needs to learn those lessons-Because if it doesn't, it will end up dark, cynical, complacent, violent and reactionary. No better than the Borg. Star Trek: The Next Generation is in the process of rediscovering itself and trying to figure out what it wants, and needs, to be going forward. I really, really hope the last two weeks have shown it that it can't be this.

Monday, April 20, 2015

Subspace Radio

Part 2 of my guest spot on The Shabcast, hosted by my friend Jack Graham (of Shabogan Graffiti and Xenomorph's Parodox) is now live!

Jack points out in the description and I second, that this is a bit of a disjointed one and mostly consists of him encouraging me to randomly leap from topic to topic in between audio and connection problems. I believe this installment looks more in-depth at my history with Star Trek, particularly Star Trek: The Next Generation and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, my interest in aesthetics as a nonverbal language and philosophy and my concept of fanfiction as the way culture reappropriates its oral myths and histories that have been stolen from it by capitalism. Included in this is my gender studies influenced reading of slash fiction and my redemption and historical contextualization of the Mary Sue concept in regards to the 1970s female-driven Star Trek fandom. Dirty Pair of course remains a significant topic of conversation, primarily because I can never, ever shut up about Dirty Pair.

A few notes…
  • The concept of the Singularity Archetype and the Glorified Body I use extensively throughout my recent Vaka Rangi work is pretty fundamental to how I read Dirty Pair, and is derived from the rhetoric of Jonathan Zap (in particular these two essays). As I discovered it rather late in the writing of volume three, it’s something I definitely need to flesh out and make a bit more central and clear in the revised edition. Zap has a tendency to be a bit too teleogical and reductive for my personal tastes, but I find his basic arguments and intellectual framework compelling.
  • For those of you who didn’t see my original essays on the Mary Sue concept and slash fiction on Vaka Rangi, I’ve provided links for you all here. Furthermore, my essay on the first Dirty Pair novel, The Great Adventure of the Dirty Pair, outlines how I feel Kei’s narration plays with the Mary Sue archetype and how her relationship with Yuri simultaneously inverts and elevates the structure of slash.
  • If you missed part one of this interview, you can catch up here if you want.

You can listen to our conversation here. Thanks again to Jack for having me on, and to Kevin and James from Pex Lives for being so kind as to host us.

Sunday, April 19, 2015

“To Absent Friends”: Legacy

You would think the moment where Star Trek: The Next Generation finally outlasts Star Trek would be a special occasion and cause for celebration. And yet “Legacy”, a morose, funereal affair that follows on thematically from “Remember Me” in taking a long, hard look at feelings of loss and the contemplation of that which we've left behind, is anything but. Surprisingly for a show that was supposedly more popular than it had ever been before, Star Trek: The Next Generation, for the first time, seems to feel apathetic, directionless and depressive.

Whose legacy are we looking at here? Is it Star Trek's? Apart from a requisite and hyper-obscure in-joke in the teaser about Camus II and archaeology, there's nothing really about the Original Series here. Is it Star Trek: The Next Generation's? Isn't that a little premature?

There is someone on everyone's mind tonight. Of course, that person is Tasha Yar. Her absence weighs heavily both diegetically and extradiegetically: Star Trek: The Next Generation's long, dark season of discontent and introspection has finally forced it to come to terms with its biggest and greatest failure. The universe has long changed since the trauma of “Skin of Evil” and it's going to change again, dramatically, in the not-too-distant future. But this doesn't mean the ghosts from our past have entirely dissipated, and in order for that new universe to come to pass the show will have to somehow square away its remaining baggage and try to divinate some good from it. If we're all about “facing our inner demons” now, it's only fair that we should tackle the biggest one of all head on.

I'm not entirely convinced “Legacy” does that, though. It's a definite theme to be sure, it's certainly about this need on some level, and it's telling Star Trek: The Next Generation is aware of this. But Michael Piller says that if you were to strip away all the backstory about Tasha, you'd be left with a perfectly serviceable, though middling, story about extracting Federation personnel from a crisis situation, akin to something like “The High Ground”. And he's right: Far from engaging with the spectre of Tasha Yar one-on-one, “Legacy” uses her as window dressing to doll up a filler episode. Which, as much of a kick to the gut as that is, is probably actually more fitting. Piller does say that it's a very good drama, because it hinges on the betrayal of an innocent (Data), which is always a gripping trope. Once again, Tasha's story and positionality is rendered a subservient subset of Data's. Just as it always has been.

Even “Turnabout Intruder” had the courtesy to at least be a fascinatingly hot mess of confused gender roles.

But Michael Piller speaks the literal truth. The man knew his drama, possibly better than anybody else. And “Legacy” is in fact a good drama. But being a good drama does not make it good Star Trek: The Next Generation: That is not, and has never been, sufficient. And while Piller may not always explicitly voice these truths, he is aware of them on a subconscious level because he's been guided to be here and fix things because Star Trek: The Next Generation needs him, and he needs it. We all need each other. This season is swiftly becoming the limit case of the creative team's conflict-for-conflict's sake writing style: We've got all the drama and conflict in the world, and it's not enough, because it's never been enough. Greater forces are in play, and the wheels of history are finally moving on the series. This interim reality cannot stand much longer, and it's time for us to start piecing together what the next one is going to look like.

Who is Ishara Yar? More to the point, who is Tasha Yar? Strictly speaking, she is negative space, and she can only be defined by who she is not and who people wish her to be. Data, and the crew more generally, claim to see Tasha in her sister, but they're really seeing neither. Who they're actually seeing is the ideals they projected onto Tasha and that they remember as hers. I don't think I ever saw “Legacy” growing up, but it definitely played a part in fleshing out the person I imagined Tasha Yar to be. I found Captain Picard's anecdote about knowing he wanted Tasha for his next command the moment she risked her life navigating a minefield particularly powerful, and it's always stuck with me ever since. I could almost see this incredibly brave and selfless person with a resolve of iron he was describing as if she was standing right in front of me. This was the person who I remember, and who the Enterprise crew mourns.

But Tasha Yar was never any of those things. The first season's creative team was skittish about putting a woman in an action role so they relegated her to filling Uhura's old job of playing switchboard operator. And because she was so cripplingly miscast, Denise Crosby was excruciatingly uncomfortable in Tasha's boots all year, although she put in a truly admirable herculean effort because she was well aware of the important role model she was tasked with providing. Denise even asked last year's team to giver her a chance to redeem her character and give her a proper sendoff, and that culminated in the epic, universe-warping “Yesterday's Enterprise”. An episode that, if nothing else, was about extradiegetically reconceptualizing Tasha Yar. We can't have negative continuity because the whiny fans will kill us, so we'll do the next best thing. An in-universe reboot that makes it so this Tasha will be the one people will remember.

But it still doesn't take. Tasha still dies, she just gets a sappy and cliched heroic sacrifice to go out by instead of a horrifically crass and insensitive one. That's still a failure state. The goal here should be to welcome Tasha back into the Enterprise crew *and to actually make her work*, because they desperately need her, and she needs them too. So Tasha's “Legacy”, such as it is, becomes to stand in for everything Star Trek: The Next Generation lost and cannot get back in this form. In the episode, the crew essentially use Ishara as a placeholder for Tasha and can't see her for who she really is. But that's actually who she is: Ishara was never anything more than a facsimile and stand-in for Tasha, because this episode is supposed to be about Tasha and goes back to her homeworld in an attempt to give her the backstory she never had. So when the Enterprise crew looks upon Ishara and sees the ideals they saw in Tasha, they're actually, on a metatextual level, looking upon Tasha and seeing the ideals they, and we, projected onto her. Ideals she wasn't allowed to live up to. And thus the episode really does live up to its name, because Tasha Yar's “Legacy” is one of tragedy and wasted potential.

But it's also about revisionist history.

We've already had “Yesterday's Enterprise” trying to give us a revised, definitive Tasha Yar. And “Legacy” goes even further: While the former episode was still held back by certain material constraints, the Tasha Yar we hear about here exists fully within the negative space. All we know about her is what Captain Picard and the others tell us about her, and their anecdotes are coloured by their own aspirations and sense of regret. They're performing a story that's a metaphor for the extradiegetic hole within Star Trek: The Next Generation. And this Tasha Yar sounds like a wonderful person. I would very much have liked to have had the chance to meet her and get to know her. Perhaps the memory cheats, but perhaps it can also reshape the past into new worlds and new realities.

What Star Trek: The Next Generation is beginning to do here is, effectively, rewrite its own history by creating new memories. A fictional world is nothing more and nothing less than what we believe it to be, so the simplest and most effective way to change things for the better is just to start believing it's something else. Ever so slowly, the new reality is taking form, and it's doing so by surreptitiously inserting itself bit by bit into the old one and taking its place. Tasha Yar is a creature of imagination at a diegetic level, and I can very clearly imagine how strong and how inspirational she must be. She's returned to the ethereal, amorphous and infinitely malleable realm of image and memory, inhabiting the hazy past of our deepest thoughts that wasn't necessarily the material past, but more the landscape of emotions that the past evoked in us.

I remember Tasha Yar. A tenacious woman of integrity and zeal so completely full of life. A warrior, a worker, a philosopher, a lover, a sister, a comrade and a friend. I remember her. And I won't forget her.

Thursday, April 16, 2015

“I'll never forget you”: Remember Me

As is is befitting a show contemplating loss and nostalgic regret, “Remember Me” plays quite knowingly and powerfully over our own memories of that which we have left behind. In our case, memories of Star Trek: The Next Generation's first season: A year that, while comparatively speaking not all that distant from us all things considered, given recent events feels like a whole lifetime away.

Most obviously, of course, this manifests in The Traveller returning to play a pivotal role in the episode's resolution, bringing with him all the provocative concepts of thought-form magick, reminding us there was once a time when Star Trek: The Next Generation would not be so quick to run away from such things. But it's not just “Where No One Has Gone Before” that is invoked, but also “11001001”, though the re-use of most of that episode's iconic effects shots, most notably the Enterprise approaching and mooring inside Spacedock. It's bittersweet that these, two of the most vividly iconic, haunting and defining visual landscapes of Star Trek: The Next Generation's inaugural year, would be the ones to be revisited now. I already feel a pang of nostalgic sadness and yearning for the feelings I associate with those images, even though the part of me that recently wrote a whole book on the historical era they're from remembers how even then the show had its slew of bungled opportunities and bad decisions. And even though I know what's just around the corner.

“Remember Me”'s central themes about people and memories tending to fade with age if we're not careful and letting people know you appreciate them while you have the chance are fairly obvious. Textually overt, even, what with the fact the whole warp dimension was conjured up out of Beverly's thoughts as she was going through those particular emotions, as multiple characters take care to point out for us. And yet there's real synchromystic power and resonance in doing this story now, at ground zero in the aftermath of the Star Trek: The Next Generation's traumatic exorcism of its past self. You may think it odd that a show currently in the process of trying to essentially reboot itself would suddenly become so backwards-thinking, what with how much “Remember Me” seems to be desperately trying to grasp at the spectre of the dearly-departed first season. But I actually think it's entirely to be expected, and welcomed, for that matter: The strength of memory is what it can remind us about our own past lives, both positive and negative. Ideally, we should want to learn not to repeat the mistakes of our past while trying to reconnect with things we might have known back then, but have since forgotten.

Put that way, “Remember Me” is also a re-evaluation of “The Battle”, and maybe even “The Neutral Zone”: The past cannot truly remain the past, because it is always with us guiding our actions in the ever-unfolding present.

And even just in this episode we can already see signs Star Trek: The Next Generation is coming into a newer, healthier and more defined identity. This is another strong Beverly Crusher episode that overtly plays to her new role as science officer and research investigator (you'll see no more Pulaski-esque doggedly defiant caregiver stuff a la “Who Watches the Watchers?” “The Enemy” or “The High Ground” here), and comes out of her unique positionality as a character to boot. Her dramatic pathos comes not from Wesley, Jack or Picard (though they do become important later on in the story, at least Wesley and the captain), but from her own feelings at meeting an old mentor we've never heard of before, but who clearly exists in the backstory of Beverly and Beverly alone.

(Even more examples of how great this outing is, and how needed it is, can be found when you discover that Gates McFadden did all her own stunts for this episode. Remember, she is a trained stuntwoman, stage combat instructor and choreographer, after all. She was also probably pregnant at the time.)

And her finesse with the scientific method is put to the test like never before, literally having to deduce the true meaning of the universe and how it connects to her own innermost being. There's that wonderfully hammy line “There's nothing wrong with me...So there must be something wrong with the universe!” which makes zero sense out of context, but, when taken as part of the climax it was written for sums up the major thrust of the story rather well. I'd probably label it one of my favourite quotes from the show if I didn't know too many people who would actually use a phrase like this unironically. And this reveals yet another area in which Star Trek: The Next Generation is taking careful and firm steps forward: When Beverly sees The Traveller, she asks him if he's to thank for bringing her back. He says no with a smile, and she goes over to hug Wesley. The Traveller speaks the literal truth: He's not the one fully responsible...But neither is Wesley.

Beverly and Beverly alone brought herself back, because she made a choice to internalize a different reality. The Traveller himself said she would have to in the observation lounge, and that all they could do was give her the tools necessary to make that choice. Wesley, despite the implications the narrative seems to be leaving that this is another Whiz Kid story, actually does very little. In fact, he's the one who causes the whole mess in the first place, in a bout of crazed, obsessive egocentrism reminiscent of “Evolution”. But “Evolution” was where Michael Piller finally marked Wesley, and now we see the show hasn't forgotten that, in spite of the various to-dos in episodes like “Ménage à Troi”, “Family” and “Final Mission”. Indeed, it's that selfsame obsession that indicates that it's Wesley, not Beverly, who needs to learn the moral of the week: Despite being the one stranded in a universe of failing memory, Beverly is aware from the beginning of the fleeting nature of our relationships with one another. This is, in fact, why the warp reality works the way it does. It's Wesley whose self-absorbed fixation on his work estranges him from his mother and casts her into a dimension where friendship and human kinship are meaningless. 

Star Trek: The Next Generation is done playing around and humouring Wesley's vices now, as is made perfectly clear in this story's opening moments. Critically, even Geordi isn't taking any of his shit anymore. The self-professed Boy Genius has, at long last, finally worn out his welcome.

I know “Remember Me” has a particularly poor reception amongst fans and critics. I'm not quite sure why, though: Yeah, it's light on action, deals with mystical stuff Trekkies tend to hate and it is a bit too clunky and heavy-handed in its symbolism at times, but the show has done far, far worse and it's such a sweet, touching little story I find it hard not to like it. Curiously, Rick Berman doesn't like it because he felt it was “confusing” to the audience because it was “misleading” them. I have no idea how he could have come to that conclusion-“Remember Me” couldn't have spelled itself out *more* straightforwardly and literally had it just been the actors sitting around the bridge set narrating the story to us out of character. Apparently, Rick Berman has also inherited from Gene Roddenberry a mind-boggling tone-deafness when it comes to certain issues.

(One other funny anecdote about “Remember Me” that directly relates to my own life: This story's writer was outgoing producer Lee Sheldon, who apparently taught at the university where I did graduate work for a time while I was studying there. I never got a chance to meet him though. I remember one of my colleagues chatting with me in the elevator one day saying 'Hey, did you hear that Lee Sheldon joined the English department? He wrote 'Remember Me'. Fucking terrible episode, but it would be neat to meet him”.)

But what sticks with me the most about “Remember Me” is its persistence of memory, as ethereal and yet as vivid as my own memories of Star Trek: The Next Generation's early days. As often as I rewatch this show, those moments that I treasure the most deeply from it are the ones I've let dissipate, though not fully disperse, such that they continue to haunt my mindscapes as the ghostly signifiers that have always inspired me. It's not always the material, measurable, quantifiable reality of the past that remains with us to guide us on our path, but the framework of emotion and thought it left us with. When we choose to remember that, particularly in a poetic age where such things actually become our language, those things we cherish and wish to preserve about the past such that they can lead us to the future we desire become much clearer.

These memories are things I'll never forget.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

“Heir Apparent”: Brothers

Previously on The Brent Spiner Show...

Well, that's the obvious reading, is it not? “Brothers” is the limit case for Brent Spiner's incredible versatility as an actor, playing three completely different characters all of whom interact with each other during the same scenes. And there's no two ways around it, Spiner is simply masterful, effortlessly shifting between Data, Lore and the surprisingly alive (temporarily) Doctor Noonian Soong. It's the latter of those roles that's worth speaking the most of here, as it provides the first genuine challenge Star Trek: The Next Generation has thrown at Spiner since he joined the show. It's not that Spiner's talents were ever not self-evident: He's great as Data, obviously, and the way he works his penchant for impersonations into the android's inherent mutability and impressionable nature is a stroke of genius. And his love of playing unreconstructed psychopaths is on record, as is his profoundly chilling skill at it: That's pretty much who Lore is here again, and there's another episode coming up next year that gives Spiner even more room to play in this regard.

But it's the brilliant, eccentric and aged Doctor Soong that's of the most interest, because it's a role manifestly different from the sort of thing Spiner's played on Star Trek: The Next Generation to date. In fact, Spiner even says he was uncertain how to play the part until he saw himself in the old age makeup, and then it immediately came to him. So, he credits the character of Doctor Soong as much to Michael Westmore as to himself, if not more so, a touching reminder of how much of television is really a group effort. And let's not forget, of course, the herculean efforts the camera crew and director Rob Bowman had to go through to get Brent Spiner to appear on camera in three different places at once. And Spiner's performance itself is predictably wonderful: We definitely get the sense that this is a person who's possessed of great confidence and ambition who, while old age has caught up with him and slowed him down, is as sharp and wry as ever. It's instantly memorable and one of Spiner's most iconic performances, really removing whatever upper limit might have been arbitrarily placed on his acting range.

I'll talk a little bit about Lore as well, because it's really this episode that sets in motion all the cool stuff the show does with his character from here on out that I particularly like. It's also the episode that sort of codifies the version of Lore's personality that sticks and that I associate most with him (not to mention a good deal of Data's subsequent character arc, particularly in terms of his relationship to Soong). Lore's not merely a generic evil twin or a violent, thuggish backstabber as Gene Roddenberry wrote him in “Datalore” this time. Here, he's a clearly twisted and genuinely wicked character who manages to be truly chilling, singing random stanzas from old folk songs, perhaps befitting his name (the song is the frequently-quoted, and just as frequently misquoted, “Abdul Abuldul Amir”. And yes, perhaps also befitting his name, Lore gets his quotes wrong and out of context). If nothing else, “Brothers” is required set-up, both extradiegetically and in terms of continuity, for Brent Spiner's scene-stealing performance in “Descent”.

But what's also interesting to note here is that as psychotically warped as Lore and his sense of ego might be, there's also the inkling that this was always a part of Noonian Soong too: Just look at how he remarks to Data “I have always loved that face”, or indeed the fact he built two androids in his own idealized likeness. This then is the ultimate redemption of the Data/Lore binary Roddenberry set up in, well, “Datalore”: Not only are both of the androids' personalities derived in some way from those of their creator (both positive and negative), but it's the union of seeming opposites, such as data and lore, through which a holistically formed being arises. Recall that the example Soong gives to Data in explaining why he made him the emotion chip is that it might help him better understand people. People like Lore and the perspective they come from. Soong is talking about empathy, which is one of the most powerful and beneficial emotions we can channel.

That all said, this also dovetails into problems I had and always have had with “Brothers”. As intellectually interesting as all this is, I have a hard time buying this as a completely satisfying or enjoyable piece of television. Now make no mistake, the stuff with Brent Spiner is positively gripping to be sure, but the rest of what the episode is doing elsewhere leaves me cold a bit. I detest the whole “homing beacon” thing that overwrites Data's programming and has him violate orders and put lives in jeopardy to take the Enterprise to Terlina III: It's crass, vapid “shocking betrayal” conflict-for-conflict's sake garbage. I also have somewhat serious issues with the Potts brothers B-plot, which is of course transparently a metaphor for the Data/Lore A-plot. That's not my problem with it though-My problem is Doctor Crusher's line “They're brothers, Data. Brothers forgive”.

The episode is obviously about empathy and understanding the positionality of others, to be sure, and those are of course extremely Star Trek: The Next Generation themes. That's all to be commended, and if more people tried to be empathic in their everyday lives the world would be a demonstrably better place than it is now. But with a line like that, it does push the show somewhat uncomfortably close to a kind of filial piety reading that I find really distasteful: Relatives are not more deserving of forgiveness than anyone else in the world simply because they're related to you. A family is just a group of people you happen to share blood with, and forgiveness is something that is earned, not something one is entitled to. Yes, obviously we should all try to be more understanding of the perspectives others are operating from, but that doesn't mean we automatically have to condone them and look the other way if they do things that oppress or dehumanize you or add to the glut of darkness in the world. That goes for our families just as much as it does for strangers we meet on the street, if not more so. Any child disowned by their family for coming out as LGBTQ knows this better than most.

(And indeed, where do you make your family? Is it your real family just because you're related to them by blood, or is it a group of people with whom you feel you belong no matter your genealogy because it's a community you understand and relate to? We were examining these same themes just last episode, and seemed to have come to a very different conclusion in that case. And even Data himself said in “Tin Man” last year that the Enterprise is where he belongs.)

One other thing worth mentioning about “Brothers” is that, just like “Suddenly Human”, we get to see the authorial debut of a new creative figure. Surprisingly, it's Rick Berman. He's been around as long as Star Trek: The Next Generation has, of course, but this is the first time he's actually offered a story of his own, and now's as good a time as any to take a look at what his actual role on the show is. It's easy to write Berman off as a studio lackey, and indeed a lot of the criticism that's going to be levelled at him over the coming decades is going to hinge on that assumption. He was a Paramount studio executive to be sure, but in 1987 he was relatively young and inexperienced one, and the reason he tends to hang around Star Trek: The Next Generation so much is because Gene Roddenberry wanted him to. The two quickly formed a relationship ans Roddenberry saw Berman as somebody he could trust and was easy talk to because he “got” Star Trek in a way the other executives didn't always.

As a result, Rick Berman became a regular in the writers' and producers' rooms, and eventually became sort of the creative team's go-between with Paramount Corporate after scoring a producer's gig of his own: He technically worked for the studio, sure, but everyone there knew he was The Star Trek Guy and got along way better with the people making the show then the people overseeing it. Indeed, he and Michael Piller felt an instantaneous connection, and the two of them have been bonding ever since. Perhaps because of his closeness to Gene Roddenberry (although it should be said a lot of the affection was one-sided on Roddenberry's part and Berman was never quite as close to him as Maurice Hurley was) Berman began to take on more and more of his “quality control” duties, tempered by his experience in that other world in the studio boardrooms, and will in the not-too-distant future be groomed in the public eye as Roddenberry's successor, even though his day-to-day responsibilities never really actually change that much.

(This also means Rick Berman is a somewhat tragically liminal figure, neither fully staff writer nor studio exec and will take the full force of the blame from all sides when Star Trek eventually implodes in on itself. It also doesn't help Berman's reputation among Star Trek fans that he has a documented track record of not letting Star Trek fans act like Star Trek fans.)

But it's Berman's strong connection to Michael Piller that holds the most ramifications for us not just tonight, but when looking at where Star Trek will soon go. In that regard, what's the most telling about Berman's first script, “Brothers”, is how much it reads like a Michael Piller script. It has the same free-flowing, haunting lyrical style that characterizes Piller at its best, especially when Lore and Doctor Soong are talking: I especially like Soong's speech about Michelangelo and sculpting. Little surprise then that Berman and Piller got along so well, and you can see a lot of the former's influence rubbing off on the latter here. It was Piller, actually, who suggested bringing Lore back to add an extra dimension to the story, and the majority of Berman's future contributions as a writer, at least on Star Trek: The Next Generation and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, will be joint efforts with Piller.

“Brothers” then is interesting: A flawed masterpiece that is nevertheless required viewing for the groundwork it lays for Star Trek's future, both in and out of universe.

Sunday, April 12, 2015

“I'm not human”: Suddenly Human

The fourth season sees the comparatively swift assembly of the team that will be the primary creative figures in Star Trek for the next four years, and in a few cases, even longer. Michael Piller, Ronald D. Moore and René Echevarria are the only survivors from the chaos of the third season, with Rick Berman maintaining the day-to-day duties he's had since the show began, as essentially an intermediary between the writing staff and Paramount Corporate. Brannon Braga is the first new addition, coming on as a staff intern over the summer. Later in the year they'll be joined by Naren Shankar, whose work we'll be seeing more of when we get to season five and beyond.

The biggest and most important new face of the year, however, we get to meet now. Jeri Taylor, who will go on to be co-executive producer of Star Trek: The Next Generation and co-creator of Star Trek Voyager, joins the team with this episode at the recommendation of outgoing producer Lee Sheldon (the Michael Wagner of the fourth season). Taylor herself freely admits she knew absolutely nothing about Star Trek before she was asked to come in and clean up “Suddenly Human”, though she was a veteran of television drama and, between this episode and her first proper submission she went back and watched basically every bit of filmed Star Trek ever produced to prepare herself for the gig. Perhaps as a result, “Suddenly Human” feels conceptually a bit like a a brand-new show trying to find its footing and to parse out what works and what doesn't. It's elevated, of course, by the by-now seasoned cast and crew who throw together a thoroughly solid and competent outing, albeit one that's also somewhat middling and unremarkable.

The uncertain nature of “Suddenly Human” manifests most clearly when you try and piece out what sort of story it actually is. How do you choose to read it? Is this a Captain Picard story about forcing him to come to terms with his dislike of children so that he can adopt the role of a father figure? This is the reading that seems to stem most directly from the show's new post-“Best of Both Worlds”, post-“Family” mandate for “inner conflict”. And this is also, it should be stated, a manifestly different sort of conflict then the show has been playing with in the recent past, although it's still one that's very much complimentary. When, for example, Ron Moore and Ira Steven Behr like to lather on the conflict, they tend to prefer making people argue and fight one another, or putting them in situations that call their judgment into question, thus making characters we thought we knew seem dangerous and unpredictable. It's a very proto-90s grimdark approach to conflict, which makes sense given Ira Behr will go on to become one of the pre-eminent architects of 90s grimdark on television.

What we seem to be more interested in now, however, at least for the moment, is forcing characters to confront their inner demons, preferably over and over again for our amusement because actually having them heal and move beyond them isn't good drama apparently. Which brings us to the Captain Picard reading which, if you couldn't guess, I'm not especially fond of. Just because a person doesn't like a certain thing or has a particular holdup about a specific issue doesn't necessarily mean it's a vice or that they should be forced to confront those things for our amusement. Chekhov's Gun is not a principle that underlines normal, real-life human relationships and interactions. Some people just don't get on well with kids and aren't cut out for the parent role, and we should respect those sorts of decisions: It's none of our business, after all. Captain Picard not being great with kids isn't a personal failing of his, and isn't it kind of heteronormative and reproductive futurist to assume that it is? Not to mention that as someone who is similarly childless by design, it kind of strikes a personal nerve with me.

Maybe it's not about Captain Picard then Maybe it's about Jono, and how he's an irresponsible adolescent who needs a strong father figure to sort him out. Well...that's no less reactionary, first off, especially given Jono displays some sort of stereotypically punk cues in his fashion and general attitude. Star Trek: The Next Generation once again comes across as ridiculously, hopelessly old and behind the times if that's the case. Jeri Taylor says that she was inspired to write the story's climax, where Jono stabs Captain Picard hoping to be executed such that he wouldn't have to choose which family to go to, based on her experiences raising teenage sons of her own. So that's certainly valid and believable, knowing how impulsive and quick to anger teenage males can be. But that's really not enough to make it a palatable reading of “Suddenly Human” either.

Then there's the reading Michael Piller endorses, and that Rick Berman also backs up: That this episode is actually about culture clashes and adoption and someone who was raised in an environment vastly different from the one they were born in, and how they become more like their adoptive environment than their birth one. Now that's a pitch that has a lot of storytelling potential and that I can get behind, although it must be said “Suddenly Human” is kind of awful at conveying that. It's pretty obvious Jono is more Talarian than human right from the start, and that the Enterprise crew requires basically the episode's entire runtime to figure that out makes them look like blithering idiots. Special demerits have to go to Worf, Deanna Troi and Doctor Crusher, all of whom spout positively intolerable reactionary garbage all throughout the episode all about either how Jono must reconnect with the culture of his birth because that's more right and natural or how Picard must “muddle through” just like a real father does. And anyway, why would you watch this when four years later Star Trek: Deep Space Nine will cover the same themes with a lot more nuance, maturity and sophistication and in a far more fitting context with “Cardassians”?

But there is one more level at which to read “Suddenly Human”, and while it doesn't exactly redeem the episode, it does give us a clue at what might be in store for the future of Star Trek: The Next Generation. This episode is, ultimately, about a human rejecting the human lifestyle of the 24th Century. Now I'm not a supporter of the theory that Star Trek: The Next Generation was ever about the inherent superiority of its advanced humans over other cultures, though I will grant that it's a particular misreading invited by certain episodes, particularly from early on in the show's run (such as “The Last Outpost” for example). But even there, I would argue the point was the self-evident superiority of a post-scarcity society that values equality and self-improvement over one that doesn't. But those aren't specifically human traits in Star Trek, but hallmarks of the universe itself: Those descriptors could apply just as easily to the Romulans or the Cardassians.

Regardless of whether or not this was ever a textual theme (and I'm inclined to believe it never was), it's something Star Trek: The Next Generation ought to clear up for anyone who might be confused, and that's what “Suddenly Human” does, more or less effectively. Jono feels out of place in human society, and while he's not 100% Talarian either, he's more Talarian than human and feels much more comfortable with them. This could even, if you were inclined, explain why the Enterprise crew is so off-key this week: One could say they're blinded by their human bias and aren't considering Jono's feelings, and, as arbiters of Starfleet and the Federation, need to be shown the human way is not the only valid way of doing things. But I don't like that reading either, because it equates the Enterprise with Starfleet and ignores the fact that the whole point of them is to show how they embody the ideals Starfleet claims to hold better than Starfleet themselves do.

“Suddenly Human” is a bit of a clumsy, inelegant affair. It's grappling with some interesting themes, but it's not handling them as well as later episodes will, or in fact as well as previous episodes have. My reaction to it has always been one of dull annoyance: This was an episode I would catch quite a lot during TNN's (and later G4's) reruns of Star Trek: The Next Generation. Whenever it would come on, I would remark “oh, I don't think I remember this one” because I kept forgetting the title. Then, as soon as I realised which episode it actually was, my attitude immediately shifted to “Oh ugh, this is this one”. For a time, and even as I went into this essay, I was under the impression the seventh season “Bloodlines” was a sequel to this. When I looked it up, it turned out it's not: “Bloodlines” is a completely different story about trying to trick Captain Picard into becoming a parent. So “Suddenly Human” doesn't even have that going for it. There's nothing it does that isn't done better somewhere else, and is barely competent enough on its own rights to keep you entertained by its own merits. Which is, sadly, going to be something of a recurring theme this year.

Thursday, April 9, 2015

“Bad Future”: The Best of Both Worlds, Part II, Family

Previously on Star Trek: The Next Generation...
“This is the real reason the Borg are here and, more to the point, why the Borg win. What they impose on the show, what all of 'The Best of Both Worlds' does, is narrative collapse. Defined as a combined diegetic and extradiegetic threat to the continuation of a specific structure such that the risk no further stories within it can ever be told becomes frighteningly real, narrative collapse manifests itself when the narrative internalizes its own unsustainability, and can only be averted through a blood sacrifice. And this is precisely what's happened to Star Trek: The Next Generation, because, even by its admittedly rocky pre-existing standards, this season has simply gone too far. The show's infuriatingly constant failure to follow its own example and live up to its potential has become pathological, and it's now even found itself staffed by people who not only don't understand it, but openly hate it and actively work towards the detriment and dissolution of its ideals. The Borg see this, take advantage of it, and they make their move early.
The very thing Star Trek: The Next Generation was supposed to be self-evidently superior to such that open warfare with it would be unthinkable in this form catches it completely off guard and horrifically curb-stomps it into submission, dealing a crippling blow that even tears apart the Enterprise family...” 
“Because also like Michael Piller, I'm approaching this as a two-parter, but have only put actual thought into the first part. When Piller wrote 'The Best of Both Worlds', he was not anticipating returning to Star Trek: The Next Generation for its fourth season (which it was most assuredly getting, just in case you may have had any doubts) and had no clue how to bring everything home again. He set up the most terrifyingly comprehensive and meticulous deconstruction of the show he could think of, and wasn't planning on being in a position to undo it. Will Captain Picard survive? If he does, how will we get him back? Will Patrick Stewart come back? Will Michael Piller? Can we stop the Borg from realising the Federation's destiny before its time? Can we prevent the narrative collapse and save Star Trek: The Next Generation, and, if we do, what will we be forced to give up? How am I going to continue this essay even though I've made all of the points I wanted to make already? 
Right now, I honestly don't know.”
And now, the conclusion...

There was no question about it. Star Trek: The Next Generation was *the* show to talk about during the summer of 1990. Throwing out a milestone in television history and the most infamous cliffhanger ending since “Who Shot J.R.?” will do that to you. There was nonstop speculation in every entertainment rag in the industry about what was going on behind the scenes and what the show might be planning for its fourth season premier. Patrick Stewart likes to tell about a story how he was driving in downtown Los Angeles at some point during that summer and stopped a red light when a family in a convertible pulled up next to him. The mother leaned out the window and screamed “YOU HAVE RUINED OUR SUMMER!”.

But that alone speaks to the stature the show truly had among the pop culture of the Long 1980s. Mainline history will tell you that “The Best of Both Worlds” and “The Best of Both Worlds, Part II” were what finally established Star Trek: The Next Generation as a show that could stand on its own without constantly living in the shadow of the Original Series; that this was the moment where people finally warmed up to the “new” crew and tuned into their adventures for their own sake, not because of the name they inherited. This is reverse logic: The very fact “The Best of Both Worlds” and “The Best of Both Worlds, Part II” had the impact they did proves how well-known and well-loved Star Trek: The Next Generation *already was*: Shows don't go from obscure footnote to worldwide sensation *literally overnight*, as The Official Star Trek Master Narrative would seem to want you to think they do. History is littered with examples of shows that do provocative and game-changing stories that completely fail to capture the imagination of the public-at-large at all.

I won't list any. I'm sure you can all think of a few.

What did happen after these episodes aired, however, was a minor, but significant shift in the tone and general consensus of Star Trek fan discourse. So naturally, that's what the historians disproportionately focus on. And there is genuinely a turning point that happens here that's important to talk about: Prior to “The Best of Both Worlds”, the prevailing attitude in Trekker circles about the two series was that only one was really Star Trek. There was, in the words of more than a few would-be historians, “Star Trek”, and then there was “That New Show”. Trek purists had a *lot* of grief to lay at the feet of Star Trek: The Next Generation-Nobody liked it because, they would say, Captain Picard was too cold and distant, the show's plots were unoriginal and lazy, they couldn't warm up to any of the actors, or that the show was too boring, clinical and preachy. What it all came down to, of course, is that Trek purists didn't like Star Trek: The Next Generation because it wasn't the Original Series.

After “The Best of Both Worlds”, however, that changed. Suddenly, everyone was talking about Star Trek: The Next Generation and how shockingly brazen and brave it had been. Now, it would seem, the word at the Star Trek convention was that there was “Star Trek”, and then there was “That Old Show”. A cynical person might say this shift in fan discourse only happened because Trekkers finally realised just how many Not-Them people were watching, enjoying and deeply loving Star Trek: The Next Generation and that it maaaaybe might not be such a bad idea to not completely and totally alienate them. And considering it had just casually tossed out what was immediately clear had become an instant television landmark, they were finally forced to admit that yeah, OK, maybe Star Trek: The Next Generation is actually pretty good after all.

So Star Trek: The Next Generation gets to come back more popular than ever before, and so does Patrick Stewart, whose agent apparently managed to straighten out that contractual dispute in time. And so, in fact, does Michael Piller, who was convinced to stay on as executive producer and head writer at the personal request of Gene Roddenberry. Roddenberry, no doubt aware his remaining time was limited, took Piller aside during the production of “The Best of Both Worlds” and told him he thought the show needed one more year to catch on and that it would mean a lot to him if Piller stayed on. All but explicitly telling him the unspoken secondary clause of that: “You're the only person who can make this show work”. And Roddenberry would have been right, of course.

Michael Piller would recount in later years how much this new reality confounded him. Brannon Braga says he walked in on his first day as a staff intern during the summer hiaturs and all he remembers was Piller constantly chanting “How do we beat the Borg? How do we beat the Borg? How do we beat the Borg?” over and over again to himself. Yet the solution, as Piller also points out, was so elegant he almost missed it when it presented itself to him. Stop trying to consciously will a narrative into existence. Listen to the characters, to what they're saying to each other and to you and to how they would personally respond to the situation as it unfolds. Let them solve the problem themselves like the free agents they are. Piller, it turns out, was trying too hard and overthinking his prompt. The characters know what to do because they exist apart from you and have their own agency-All you're doing is channeling their thoughts, their voice and their actions onto paper.

Michael Piller called this “Zen Writing”. I call this meditating on your divines and letting your spirit guides show you the way.

If only that were the end of the story. But “The Best of Both Worlds” and “The Best of Both Worlds, Part II” also comprise a narrative collapse, and a narrative collapse can only be averted through blood sacrifice. So what's the tragic consequence of Star Trek: The Next Generation coming back from the brink of complete Borgification at the last second? Quite simply put, Star Trek: The Next Generation has to end. That is, the Star Trek: The Next Generation we've been following since 1987 has to end, and something else bearing its name has to take its place. Star Trek: The Next Generation must be *made* to change, and, unlike ascending to a grander form, this change must be brought upon by external factors rather than its own spiritual apotheosis. The show does not change its own mark, but is depowered and has its mark changed by other people.

While “The Best of Both Worlds, Part II” is the finale of the old show, we're still a good month or so away from the debut of the new one. What we have in the interim is a somber and morose epliogue for the story that just died, and nowhere is that clearer than in “Family”, which, while produced well after, was moved to the top of the queue as it's the natural conclusion to the Wolf 359 tragedy. As the Enterprise limps back to drydock for extensive repairs, the crew reconnect with their respective families to come to terms with the trauma they've all just experienced. “Family” is a strong attempt at an ensemble show, with some character development regarding Wesley and his father (though the fact both he and Beverly are defined almost exclusively by the absence of Jack and the tension surrounding Captain Picard remains deeply uncomfortable) and some more of Worf's backstory fleshed out with the introduction of the Rozhenkos, his adoptive family, that will further lay groundwork for the big Worf story at the back end of the season.

But of course, the big draw for everyone is Captain Picard coming to terms with the deep wounds inflicted by the Borg and the introduction of his own “canonical” family on Earth. Those wounds are still very raw here and he's still in shock, as is the show itself. That's perhaps to be expected. But the ramifications of this story last far beyond the chaotic interregnum of the early fourth season and cast a shadow over everything Star Trek will ever do from now on. I've said I'm not a fan of Captain Picard's established backstory here when compared to the one John de Lancie gave him in “The Gift”. I stand by that, even though “Family” must be praised for the quiet dignity it affords the Picards both in terms of writing and acting. But my larger issue with this story is that while it was arguably right to take the time to examine the effect “The Best of Both Worlds” had on Star Trek: The Next Generation's collective psyche, it never actually heals these wounds. Captain Picard will continue to be traumatized by what happens here for the rest of his existence in this form, to the point he'll be pushed into antihero territory.

And the thing about Star Trek is that it's supposed to be about healing.

Drama, however, is not about healing. It is about the glorification of conflict, misery and suffering to the level of the epic, because that's what people seem to like to watch. This is something I'll freely confess I'll never be able to understand: I am privileged in many areas of my life and am keenly aware of the specific advantages I have at my disposal. But even so my life has its fair share of hardships and, as of this writing, the last nine months in particular have not been especially easy for me. I have to set aside time for art and entertainment, and when I do I don't want to wallow in the difficulties I have to endure everywhere else in my life. That's not to say I want to forget about what the world is like or be lulled into complacency about the hegemonic status quo, but I do want to have my imagination broadened, a smile brought to my face and to be inspired that a better world than the one we've got is attainable. You can call that “escapism”, but I guess that depends on what your definition of “escape” is. And if you have anything you think you need to escape from.

I would imagine people less fortunate than I would feel even more strongly about this, but I can't speak for anyone but myself.

The Master Narrative of Received Star Trek History will say that “Family” is important because it introduces inner conflict, and thus humanity, to Captain Picard. But did it really? Wasn't the whole point of “The Best of Both Worlds” to demonstrate the captain's humanity by stripping him of it? Aren't there other ways to showcase a person's humanity and the trials and tribulations we all go through besides shining a spotlight on them and forcing them to emotionally break down for our amusement? And what does it say about us as a culture that this is what we like to watch for entertainment? Television, as a medium, relies on spectacle to sustain itself. You can't, in fact, have visual media of any kind without spectacle. There are even literary genres that don't work without it. Our moral compass lies, I think, in where we place that spectacle.

Angst-ridden internal conflict is a form of spectacle, and I would argue voyeurism, that has attained a veneer of legitimacy from would-be intellectuals because it feels more real and authentic than, say, casual and upfront depictions of sexuality, pretty art design or action scenes. I think it's very much worth asking yourself if that's really true. Just because something “feels” real doesn't mean it is: That's the devil's clause of cinematic representationalism. Guy Debord tells us that a society is in trouble when the hollow simulacrum of a thing replaces the thing itself. I think a society that willfully partakes in communal voyeurism of ironic cynicism is actually a complacent one, having resigned itself to the hegemonic status quo and an acceptance that nothing can ever change. This is the Long 1990s. And this is what Star Trek: The Next Generation, in whatever form it's going to take from here, must now be prepared to stand against.

The Borg weren't defeated. They just transfigured themselves.